We’re having one of those awkward and passive-aggressive non-conversations these days, aren’t we? The topic is patriotism, and, though it typically inhabits the subtextual dimension of values, it does have a tendency of breaching the surface and inserting itself abruptly into the conversation. That’s what’s happening right now.
It’s an elephant in the room, and, like the fabled Indian elephant, we’re all gathered about it like blind folk insisting our subjective impressions be accepted as authoritative. You know the fable, right? A group of blind travelers happens upon said pachyderm, and each places their hands on one section of the animal then attempt to describe it. But each report seems incompatible with the next! Is it hard or squishy, floppy or firm, rough or smooth? They bicker about whose version should be adopted as definitive. Of course the seeing observer would note that their disagreement stems from their dual debilitations of sightlessness and subjectivity. A perceiving observer, however, would name their real debilitation as obstinance; a puzzling refusal to recognize one’s obvious limitations.
The conceptual real estate of patriotism has always been subject to contentious and conflicting claims of possession. This has situated the idea squarely in a Purgatory of parlance. In colonial-era Britain, the term was a political byword; a means of associating one’s opponent with those whose love of country had cost them their civil instincts. In true American fashion, the byword was playfully co-opted (much like “yankee doodle”) into the revolutionary vernacular. We were busy starting a new nation, and if they wanted to call us patriots, so be it!
And so patriotism received its coronation into the courts of unwritten American virtues. As such, we’re often loath to concede just how precarious the concept really is, and how, as an unexamined virtue, it might degrade into something foul.
During an especially tremulous time in British history (French threats from without, Irish threats from within), Coleridge wrote the poem Fears in Solitude:
O Britons ! O my brethren ! I have told
Most bitter truth, but without bitterness.
Nor deem my zeal or factious or mistimed ;
For never can true courage dwell with them,
Who, playing tricks with conscience, dare not look
At their own vices. We have been too long
Dupes of a deep delusion !
He speaks of “playing tricks with conscience” instead of daring to “look at their own vices”. Coleridge goes on to name two paths of error into which his countrymen might stray: those “Groaning with restless enmity” who clamor for swift and total change, as though the national troubles might be “Pulled off at pleasure” like a robe. Over and against this, he decries those who “Dote with a mad idolatry”:
Who will not fall before their images,
And yield them worship, they are enemies
Even of their country !
Coleridge admits himself to tend toward an idolatry of country—so sentimental were his ties to his “Mother Isle”— but beckons us, his readers, into a lived patriotism that succumbs neither to the antipathy of malcontent nor the apathy of power, each of which might imperil his country or, in tandem, rent it down the middle. Patriotism is a matter of sacrosanct responsibility to the welfare of one’s state. Patriotism is why Socrates refused Crito’s offer to help him escape his death sentence of “corrupting the youth” and instead drank the deadly hemlock. Having already given his life for the good of Athens, how could he fail to stand behind his teaching through such flight?
Threats of emigration and fatalistic disengagement are symptomatic of Coleridge’s vice of “restless enmity”, but costly civil participation never is. As with Plato (or Mandela or Ghandi or Walensa or Havel or King), the great patriots of history have rejected disimpassioned resignation and disaffection and have stood to fight for the soul of their land—to chide and compel the people of their place up out of morass or out from under authoritarianism.
Extolling patriotism for patriotism’s sake is peculiar—hollow and lacking any substance whatsoever. A true patriot understands this, and is appalled by such demagoguery. We are patriotic because we love our nation and yearn to see it rise to its highest form of being, whether that be holding it to its soaring ideals, shaping these ideals from within or sacrificing to preserve them. Apart from these ideals, what value does patriotism have?
When a nation goes to war, it is jus ad bellum—justified war. I’ll not argue whether war is ever justified, only that war is always given justification (the narrative for why we’re “the good guys”). We may refer to “oppression” or “tyranny” or even a “threatened way of life”, but, nested in every hot or cold conflict, there is a sense of national virtue. In this regard it is patriotic to honor the military, because they protect a way of life (or purport to do so). But to make patriotism interchangeable with military veneration is misguided. If our military would risk life and limb to protect our way of life, surely the important thing is our way of life. In a domestic sense, a nation’s citizens also must labor in love to preserve this way of life or the military personnel have sacrificed for naught. And to pit these two things against one another? What sense does that make, except as political gamesmanship?
Thus, Coleridge denounces the second vice of “mad idolatry”. Note the language of forced veneration of images and obsequiousness, the equating of any dissent with sedition! What he’s describing is not patriotism but nationalism, and these two ideas must be distinguished.
The late Chicago Sun-Times columnist Sydney Harris distinguished them helpfully:
The difference between patriotism and nationalism is that the patriot is proud of his country for what it does, and the nationalist is proud of his country no matter what it does; the first attitude creates a feeling of responsibility, but the second a feeling of blind arrogance…
Nationalism is one of history’s great cancers, and one of its identifying traits is that it causes its host to label fellow citizens of divergent viewpoints as enemies and tumbles into the mentality of “might is right” jingoism.
Now we forget that Plato’s Republic was intended to employ nation as an analogy for understanding why virtues—chief among them, justice—should be seen as inherently good for an individual.
But at present let us finish the examination we made in which we believed it would be easier to see what sort of thing justice is in one man, if we were to try to inspect it in some larger thing, one of those which contain justice, viewing it there first.
We have agreed already that this larger thing is the city, and we founded our city so as to be at its very best, as well as we could, since we knew well that in the good city surely justice would be. What we found there, the, let us apply to the single man…
I wonder if it wouldn’t be good, in a similar vein, to examine patriotism as distinct from nationalism in analogy to a relationship between two individuals, the one being the citizen, and the other being country?
Real patriotism is a matter of loving devotion to one’s country, is it not? This is why Coleridge penned, “O my brethren ! I have told / Most bitter truth, but without bitterness.” His deep love of country compels him to diagnose its maladies and follies! True love does fight fiercely for the other, but that fight often involves a fight with the other for the other’s sake; what we coin, “tough love”. Love sees what the beloved might be, and is not content to suffer any diminution therein. Love plays its role in providing, preserving and protecting toward the beloved. And, yes, love sacrifices for the beloved in any number of ways—one day at a time and, when called upon, in dire threat.
Nationalism is more akin to loyalty. Loyalty is valuable trait, but, devoid of love and justice, tends toward peril. Loyalty is a form of blindness, precluding us from seeing flaws or, maybe even more troubling, prohibiting us from addressing them. Loyalty is the seedbed of what Hannah Arendt described as “the banality of evil“; disordered attachments that compromise our capacities for reason and empathy, opening untold gateways of cruelty. Loyalty can only fight against others on behalf of its object, but will never defy or oppose the object itself. In fact, loyalty can suffer no critique of its object; all such overtures are seen as acts of hostility. Loyalty, therefore, bends and contorts all its values to the existing (or even deteriorating) state of its object. Loyalty would put one’s self upon the alter of its object as a sacrifice of appeasement. It is a doting mad idolatry indeed.
Love is the basis of a healthy relationship. Blind loyalty, of dysfunction. Of course loyalty can find its own marvelous gifts when governed by love, but a patriotism predicated on loyalty alone is not true patriotism. It’s nationalism.
The aforementioned social philosopher Arendt deemed evil banal (unoriginal or strangely commonplace) as the result of her journalistic coverage of the trial of Adolph Eichmann in Jerusalem.
Of love, she wrote,
Love, by its very nature, is unworldly, and it is for this reason rather than its rarity that it is not only apolitical but antipolitical, perhaps the most powerful of all antipolitical forces.
There is an apolitical love for nation that verges on antipolitical, for it recognizes with jealousy the destructiveness political forces exert on one’s nation.
National and tribal pride exists in nearly every polity or clan that has ever existed; it is ubiquitously human to think one’s place special. (Patriotism does, after all, derive from the Greek patér, or “father”. It’s impulses resembling those of family.)
But few nations locate their patriotic fervor so precisely in their national ideals as America. It was these transcendent human truths compelled us to Revolution. Thus, Jefferson wrote:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.
Strong words. The rights inherent and inalienable, supercede the government so fully as to themselves be mandates of reformation!
In Common Sense, Thomas Paine asserted,
The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind. Many circumstances have, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the principles of all Lovers of Mankind are affected.
It’s the rationale for the constitutional byline “We the people of the United States…”
…in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Soaring? Absolutely! Unrealistic? Probably. Hypocritical? Definitely! Powerful? Without a doubt. In this sense, we must almost understand our nation itself as secondary to its stated ideals!
Lincoln stressed this in his sobered and sobering second inaugural address:
Yet, if God wills that [the Civil War] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Welcoming the demise of one’s country can only be seen as patriotic when one esteems its ideals as existentially irreducible.
Our legacy as nation is sordid to say the least; requiring more than a few times the bitter medicine of bitter truth. Not a few times, it has offered back a bitter drink of its own hemlock. We’ll never fully put such things behind us.
Like the blind travelers, we lay hands on our own experiential contact with this beast called America, and report we must what manner of beast it seems. Is it just or unjust, kind or cruel, beautiful or ugly? The answer is yes. And it always has been. Is it patriotic to honor our military? Undoubtedly! Is it patriotic to show solidarity to the marginalized or oppressed? Of course! Are our images and anthems emblematic of our national exceptionalism? Clearly! No one kneels during Party in the USA! It is a patriotic lament for what our country is failing to live up to, and these venerated reference points offer us, as they should, symbolic, inalienable prophetic intersections.
We’re having one of those awkward and passive-aggressive non-conversations on the topic of patriotism these days. But one thing patriotism cannot abide is being inflicted upon a citizenry as a cudgel of suppression. So let’s stop doing that. Let’s start hearing those who offer us a fuller perspective on what our nations is and might be.
Wouldn’t that be patriotic?